Aquaculture company ordered to repair nets at second location
By Marcy Stamper
Cooke Aquaculture, which raises Atlantic salmon at eight locations in the Puget Sound, has 60 days to repair net pens near Bainbridge Island, the Washington Department of Resources (DNR) told the company last week.
The discovery of problems at these net pens comes two months after another Cooke facility near Anacortes failed, releasing more than half of the 305,000 non-native fish into the sound.
Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) staff recently inspected Cooke’s nets in Rich Passage near Bainbridge Island and found they are structurally sound, according to Hatchery Division Manager Eric Kinne. WDFW issued a permit to Cooke last week that allows the company to transport about 1 million juvenile Atlantic salmon from a hatchery in Thurston County to the pens.
The problems cited by DNR include a hole in a predation net — not the stock nets used for rearing fish — and corrosion in an above-water infrastructure, said Kinne.
Commissioner of Public Lands Hilary Franz and Gov. Jay Inslee both voiced their concerns about the discovery of additional shortcomings at Cooke Aquaculture facilities.
“Given the failure of the Cypress Island facility [near Anacortes], we have to be extra-vigilant in making sure Cooke’s other existing aquaculture facilities are structurally sound,” said Franz. “We cannot tolerate any risk that more Atlantic salmon will be released in Washington’s waters.”
State law doesn’t give regulators the authority to deny Cooke’s permit to move healthy fish into an existing net pen, according to Cori Simmons, communications director for DNR.
The August salmon release is still under investigation, and efforts to recover the escaped fish continue.
As of last week, more than 200,000 of the fish had been accounted for, said Kinne. Cooke removed almost 146,000 fish from the damaged nets and tribal fishers caught almost 50,000, he said.
WDFW has been urging anglers to catch as many of the edible fish as possible. Recreational and commercial anglers reported catching 4,700, said Kinne.
WDFW examined a subset of the recovered fish and found none had eaten anything since they escaped in August — they literally had empty stomachs, said Kinne. The Atlantic salmon “only know pellets,” he said, and the fish apparently did not adapt to eating insects, invertebrates or small fish, their natural food in the wild.
While Pacific salmon raised in hatcheries do adapt and begin fending for themselves, when WDFW tried to rear Atlantic salmon years ago, the agency found that the Atlantic species don’t survive in the Pacific Ocean, said Kinne.
Escaped salmon that are not recovered will most likely starve to death and become food for other marine organisms, said Kinne. The fish Cooke removed from the damaged nets were used as fertilizer, he said.
Despite concerns that the fish could swim south to the Columbia River and ultimately make their way to tributaries including the Methow River, none of the fish have been caught further south than Tacoma. More fish headed north, and some have been caught off the coast of northern Vancouver Island in British Columbia.
Even though it’s a very long distance for fish to travel — particularly those acclimated only to nets — state agencies responded as if it was a real possibility that some fish could enter the Columbia, said Simmons in August.
WDFW is continuing to monitor all streams and hatcheries to be sure the Atlantic salmon don’t affect native fish, said Kinne.
Cooke is responsible for recovering the fish and salvaging the badly damaged containment structure near Anacortes, said Simmons.
If Cooke doesn’t repair the net pens at Rich Passage within 60 days, its lease with the state can be terminated, said Simmons.